Sharon Bishop graduated in BEng Materials Engineering in 1998, and then completed her MRes in 1999.
Why did you decide to study at Swansea University?
It was a combination of factors – Swansea was one of the best places in the country to study this course, and it’s also where my Dad was from and I had family there, so I’ve always known and loved the area. The fantastic beach location was a big plus too!
What did you enjoy most about your course at Swansea?
The combination of study and practical work – you get to use both your brain and your hands.
What are you doing now career-wise?
I am Director of The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, which is one of four festivals organised by a charity called Cheltenham Festivals (the others are Jazz, classical Music and Literature). The Science Festival happens over six days in June. This year we issued 39,000 tickets for talks, debates, shows, comedy, family events, interactive exhibitions, an extensive schools programme and much more. I also oversee a competition called FameLab, which aims to discover and develop scientists and engineers who have a talent for communicating their research with the public. We started the competition in the UK in 2005, and now it runs in 18 other countries around the world through partnerships with the British Council and with NASA in the USA.
How has Swansea University and your course helped you with your chosen career path?
The course gave me an understanding of how science works and how universities work, which is vitally important to my current role because I work closely with a lot of researchers and research funders. It also gave me a passion for engineering that I have never lost, and I love being able to share that with thousands of other people through the festival programme.
What are the most challenging parts of your job?
My working year revolves around six days in June, so there are some big pressure points with tight deadlines, long hours and lots of hard work. Fundraising is also a challenge – we have to raise large sums to make sure the festival can continue its charitable work and develop year on year, and that certainly has its challenges in the current economic climate
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
There are so many rewarding parts! It’s a huge team effort and everyone is passionate about what they do, and I love working in such a dynamic environment. I also work with scientists and engineers who are at the frontline of research – everything from the neuroscience of mental illness to 3D printing technology – so I get to learn about the most amazing things and meet some fascinating people.
It is the public response that is most rewarding though – speaking to a group of young men who came to an event about anorexia because they wanted to understand what their friend was going through; hearing from a girl who chose to study engineering because she was inspired by something she saw at the festival; hearing about an 8 year old boy who is no longer afraid of having an MRI scan because he had the chance to use one at the festival; the look on Robert Winston’s face when a child stumped him with a question; the smiles on people’s faces simply because they’re having a great time. The festival really makes a difference to people’s lives, and that’s why I do it.
What was the best careers advice you were given?
That a career is not necessarily for life! Some people know exactly what they want to do and have their career path mapped out. I didn’t, and I worried that I should. But these days it is rare to find a job for life – the main thing is to do something you enjoy and find rewarding.
What advice do you have for current students and new graduates?
Take every opportunity and get as much experience as you can. Seek out opportunities to do more of the things you find interesting and enjoy. Talk to people – find out what they do and tell them what you do and why you love it, because you never know who or what they know. Be passionate. Be curious.
What are your plans for the future?
The wonderful thing about working for the festival is that no two years are the same – there are always new ideas, new opportunities and bigger, grander plans (if only we can find the funding to do them!) So the continued growth and profile of the festival is high up my list of plans. But mainly I want to continue being inspired by what I do and the scientists I meet, to continue learning myself, and to be happy.
What have you done that you are most proud of?
The festival is widely acknowledged as the best of its kind in the UK, and indeed the world, and I’m very proud of it. The demand for it has grown enormously in my time here – the number of tickets we’ve sold has more than doubled, organisations are clamouring to work with us, and we’re also doing quite a bit of consultancy with others who want to set up their own festivals in other countries. So we must be doing something right!
What are your favourite memories of your university years at Swansea?
80s night in Icon. Snow on the beach. The friends I made – some of them still live in Swansea, so I get to come back and visit quite often.
And finally, describe yourself in 3 words…
Understanding. Meticulous. Inquisitive.